Check My Machine: an interview with Darkstar
Darkstar began causing ripples with their single “Need You”, released by Hyperdub Records in 2008. Created by the duo of James Young and Aiden Whalley, that track’s insistent two-step rhythm framed an unusual melodicism and a vocodered tale of an all-too-human robot love. After their next single “Aidy’s Girl Is A Computer” snared the attention of an audience wider than their homebase of venues like Plastic People and club nights like FWD>>, Young and Whalley took what was seen as a radical change in direction.
Enlisting vocalist James Buttery, the new trio released their first album in 2010 (also on Hyperdub), called North, which displayed an increasing concern with sound and song, but very little for the dancefloor the project had come up on. Symphonic pop arrangements rendered on synths and processed for maximum glitch revealed the humanity of their machine.
Shortly after the release of North, Darkstar signed to Warp Records, and have now finally released their new album News From Nowhere. Working with producer Richard Formby, after holing up in the West Yorkshire countryside and writing as a unit, they continue the journey they started with North. With careful attention to small sonic details and a greater range of instrumentation, the popcraft of Darkstar displays subtlety, nuance, and their now trademark introspection. Lisa Blanning met Darkstar before their recent Berlin performance at Gretchen to discuss change, expectation, and the British sensibility of Northness.
To me, what’s interesting about your project is that it started out predominately as a dance project. And obviously, that had a lot to do with the energy of what was going on in London at the time, but then it essentially—I hope this isn’t going to offend you—became an indie band, as far as I can tell.
Aiden Whalley: Electronic version of one, maybe.
James Young: Yeah, it was always based around synthesis and processing. It wasn’t straight up, “Let’s get a guitar out and see what we can get.” It was more like, “That sounds good. Let’s see what it sounds like if we do this, or that, or anything else we can find.”
Indie, obviously, has got certain connotations, especially for people who come from a dance background. But I feel like, even with your earlier stuff, it seems like there’s always been a concern for song.
AW: Yeah, I think I’ve always listened to bands as well as electronic music. It’s an important thing, working around different sections and breaking songs down, the structure of them, and how they move from section to section.
JY: I think what we did do in the early stuff was have a very clear idea of what a beginning, middle and end was within what we were trying to do. And we always try to follow that. Because a lot of the records around at that time that we liked were part of, but I wouldn’t say fully-fledged, things like FWD>> and Plastic People; stuff like that, they were loops, grime loops, essentially. So, I think we always wanted to make it swell and bring it back, and finish it properly.
How did you find James Buttery?
James Buttery: [Aiden and I] went to college together in Leeds when we were 16. We did two years there and we all went to the same university as well.
So, when you had the idea that you wanted to bring on a vocalist did you already have James in mind?
JY: No, we were approached by Mary Anne Hobbs to do a track for a Planet Mu compilation [Wild Angels], and we had an idea to do In Rainbows, but the Radiohead album hadn’t long come out. We really liked that album, we wanted to cover a track off that but put it through a machine—really process it until it’s drenched in glitch. It happened coincidentally: James lived around the corner from us and we bumped into each other quite a lot and talked about his projects, he was in a band that we liked.
JB: Called Sunbirds, quite poppy guitar stuff.
JY: The first lot of demos we really liked, and we liked James’ voice. I think James was curious as to what we were doing, “Aidy’s Girl” was just happening, it was getting a little bit of attention. So we got James to try the “Videotape” track, the cover of Radiohead, and it worked well. By that time we were, say, 75% into an album we had planned. And then we kind of started writing things leaning more towards that Radiohead cover, which became the early demos of North. We got James back in for a few sessions, and that took on its own momentum.
You say that you had 75% of North already written, before you brought James in fully? Is that correct?
JY: Not really, what I’m trying to say was that we had an original plan, a working title called Check My Machine for Hyperdub that was more in tune with “Aidy’s Girl” and “Need You”. That was a fully-fledged album in the making almost, it needed fleshing out, but the majority of work was there. But then we scrapped that and went to North. We had a bunch of demos for Check My Machine and a bunch of demos for North living simultaneously, and then we’d flip between and record James and try and figure out what we wanted to do. But then it came to the point where we actually preferred working on this stuff because it interested us more.
Would it be fair to say that James was a muse?
JY: I wouldn’t say a muse. James would come round and talk about things that we were doing and what he was doing, have a smoke, see what was going on, and see what ideas flew out.
JB: I think there’s a culture of people making music on laptops that’s really important to what we do and how we got together. We all studied music production in university, there’s this whole group of people in London doing these things. So, it wasn’t weird to go round someone’s house and do some singing on a track or play bass or whatever. I was doing that for a long time in London. It was quite inevitable to meet someone where it clicked and I could write for, as well. Because Aiden was predominately songwriter before, too.
There’s this really good interview that you did with Kode9 on the Hyperdub website, where you talk about how you wanted to defy expectations. Specifically, you’re talking about North. With this record, it seems a refinement, a lusher, more detailed version of what you did with North.
AW: I think that’s accurate.
What about that desire to defy expectations?
JY: You’re bringing that up, I haven’t heard that in a long time or read that interview maybe in a couple of years, but I think what I’ve learned with News From Nowhere is that the most important thing for us to do in a studio is to entertain ourselves, and always be satisfied. And I think because we listen to a wide range of music and are pretty studious with records from lots and lots of genres and artists and types of music that we probably lean towards more experimental and progressive things.
JB: I think it’s a constant thing to keep refining what you’re doing, trying to realise your ideas. There’s a certain amount of experimentation, and a quite random way of writing this sort of stuff. It’s not so formulaic. Sometimes you have no idea what you’re going to come out with. That’s the thing we share the most between us: if it feels good, go with it.
AW: That’s why there’s no real limitations to the sound, it’s the way we write it as well.
JY: I think the refinement thing is also discovering new things and refining what we like, and I think that’s evident in what you’re producing in a studio.
What you’ve just described to me implies that any external concerns are less important.
I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but are you saying that expectations of other people was a concern and isn’t now?
JY: It has been a concern in certain situations. For instance, Warp. They’ve been like, “Do whatever you’ve got to do. Go and make the record. We trust you,” which is a great feeling. But then we’ve got an A&R who’s got great taste; really likes what we’ve done with the record. Luckily enough for us he could see where we wanted to go with it, and was cool. Aside from that, I’m not sure if I care what anyone thinks.
JB: There’s a certain responsibility, I felt, when you sign to Warp, to deliver something worthy of their label. But only in terms of quality. So, it’s so subjective, you can’t really define what that is. They really encouraged us to be ourselves.
JY: But also try to tick that box of being entertained yourself, because I do think you need to have that hunger and enthusiasm to get up everyday. Because basically, where we were living was a four-bedroom, secluded spot in this village, so socially we had nothing, really, to go on. But you get to a point in the winter where you just meander around the house. And it got to the point where I wasn’t even looking at a computer. I was just like, “I can’t do it.” It’s a big question, if you care about what people think. I care about what my parents think, I’d like for them to be able to relate to that year that we just spent in the country. Critically, I’m not sure if I care. And then I don’t know if that’s a lie. It’s nice for someone to listen to it and get it.
Does that mean that Darkstar version 1.0 did care about what other people thought? That there were expectations that were trying to be met?
JY: Possibly. I’ve said this before, but I think back with Hyperdub, and especially just before Hyperdub, it was almost like FWD>> was a platform and Hyperdub was a platform to be the most imaginative around that group of artists and try and put your stamp on a particular scene. And I like that, I really like that. It’s really healthy. But with an album, it’s different. Once we got into North, it was like, “We can’t just make ten of those tunes,” or that specific thing. I’m not saying that “Aidy’s” and “Need You” were just, “Here you go, this is what we made. Let’s listen to it at FWD>>,” or anything like that. It was definitely us, there’s a lot of our personality in those records, but with the album that platform wasn’t so much thought of. With North, three or four tracks in, you know it’s not for a club. One track in, really. It was more of a home-listening perspective. You start thinking about the intricacies and the nuances of sound, and what you can get out of subtleties in the mix, and the music.
I would agree with one of the implications of what you just said, which is that dance music operates in scenes—’scenius’ being the term that we like to use. Do you think you’re part of a scene now?
AW: Not stylistically. But we’re electronic and the way we make tunes is from a production angle mixed with songwriting. There’s a lot of people that do that.
JY: There’s a common ground, but there’s no social… there’s no home or house.
JB: I’ve never really felt like part of a scene. It’s really interesting what happened with FWD>> and all that time in London. It’s just like a modern version of Carnaby Street in the ’60s. Or punk music. It’s that phenomenon. People come together and there’s this new kind of music being born. But since I’ve been involved it’s moved on a bit since then, to just being us and us creating something, and not really looking around us.
Obviously, scenes are important because they’re not just aesthetic, they are actually social. That’s really important; it has been, historically, in a place like London. The fact that you think you’re not part of a scene now, I’m assuming you think you were part of a scene then. If we’re talking only aesthetically, it seems as though the new record could share the same space as a group like Animal Collective. You’re smiling, has this been a recurring theme?
AW: It has, since the “Amplified Ease” track came out there’s been this mention of Animal Collective. Sometimes in a derogatory sense. Other times as a reference point. It’s difficult to ignore a band like Animal Collective because they’re so good at what they do. You can tell that they’re thinking on a different plane, I think. We consumed various Animal Collective records, like lots of other people, but it was such a small fraction of what we were listening to as a group, and what we were absorbing in that time in Yorkshire.
Let me just jump in there and say that in no way do I think you’re aping Animal Collective. To me, it’s very obvious that the progression from North to the new record is all there. That this is a logical continuation and it doesn’t have anything to do with listening to that band. You’ve just arrived at a somewhat similar space, but from a very different direction. And in all honesty, one thing I appreciate about your music, is you guys manage to do this without ever venturing into twee territory. I like to think that a part of what you’re doing is spearheading a sort of digital song movement for Britain as well. It melds different worlds.
JY: I think the most satisfying thing about releasing the record is to hear people say it’s odd. And I think that’s kind of what you just described in an articulate way.
There’s such a specific vibe to your music. Even when it was dancier, it still had that vibe. Does that have to do with northness?
JB: Being from the north?
JY: I think it might have something to do with early records. From my point of view, I used to listen to quite a lot of Nightmares On Wax and stuff.
JB: That’s a northern thing as well.
JY: Yes, they’re from Leeds. It was banging house on Warp, or it had a little undertone of melancholy. And I quite like that in dance music, and I think that was important for us to try and capture.
AW: It’s just a natural thing, I don’t really think about it like that. It just comes through.
JB: It’s got to have something to do with where you come from, because London’s so different. That is a factor.
JY: Also, like I said before, the most important thing is for the person who’s doing the job to be satisfied. And that was a vibe that interested us more, because there were lots of opportunities to do quite big, FWD>>-oriented tracks. There was a lot of that disposable wobble stuff going on. And you could even do a good version of that and it would still be fairly credible, but it was so soul-destroying to try and sit there for a day and make something that was banging.
JB: There’s a heritage in Britain of the weird end of pop music and good songwriting and quite inventive production, and that’s something that’s really important to us. Sort of being British about it, whatever that means.
JY: A good thing about this record, that we really set out to do was put a northern English vibe on it. I don’t know if it came across, but we definitely tried.
AW: This record is—not that the other one wasn’t—is honest and it’s trying to satisfy what you think you can do, and not retracing old ground. I suppose the environment that we were in, this kind of northern countryside, and just being a little bit more sure of what we were doing… Naturally we’re from the north, and we’re in that environment…
JB: There was a humble charm to where we were. It does affect you. In London, it’s different. It’s so super fast, you see people with flashy cars and all the things that money brings. Where we were it’s like an old, industrial place that’s in decline. But then there’s all this beautiful countryside. It’s just a totally different vibe. I think that had a massive effect on what we were doing.
JY: Lyrically, we try to touch on this with this record—the subtleties of everyday life. And the importance of certain moments that would go unnoticed by every single person around a specific time and place. Because with the space up there, you tend to take things in that you hadn’t done in London for a while. But they’re familiar—I’m from a suburban town—it’s just a quieter version. You get used to things that you’d maybe grown apart from in London.
Are you ever going to let that material that you never released out?
JY: No. It’ll never come out. I don’t even know if we could find it.
AW: A lot of the way we do things, it’ll reach a certain stage, but they’ll be unfinished. So, they’re not really tunes we could let go anyway, really.
JB: I’ve seen it on a hard drive…
AW: We’ve got quite a lot [laughs].
JY: I think the way we are and the way we think, we always want to look at fresh ideas.
JB: When you create something, it’s not everything that you want so show people.
To me, it’s it’s like an alternate reality of Darkstar. The bizarro Darkstar; I like the idea that the bizarro Darkstar lurks on a hard drive somewhere, trapped in the crystal spinning in the void.
JY: I actually released a track on Twitter at about 3 a.m. maybe six weeks ago. Didn’t tell anyone, just put it up. It was the original of “You Don’t Need A Weatherman”, which has nothing to do with this “You Don’t Need A Weatherman”, we just liked the title. I just put it up for an hour, couldn’t sleep, then deleted the link. So, something’s out there, but I don’t know who’s got it.~
Published February 13, 2013. Words by Lisa Blanning.